Academic journal article The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

Beyond Cooperation Failures: How European Crises Make the European Union Stronger

Academic journal article The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

Beyond Cooperation Failures: How European Crises Make the European Union Stronger

Article excerpt

"History is just one damned thing after another." This is how Winston Churchill, echoing the historian Toynbee, described all of European history in only eight words. Today, I am afraid the history of European integration cannot escape a similar description.

The European Union sprung out of a major continental crisis, the Second World War, and since then, it has taken steps forward not by following a predetermined plan or strategy-Europe has historically proven that it is not a good planner-but by responding to emergencies and uncertainties. Today, the EU finds itself once again at a turning point: it will either proceed to a sincere deepening of its integration process so its member-states can manage collectively the global challenges they face, or it will allow the forces of unilateralism and populism to lead the EU to institutional stagnation, and then disintegration. This critical decision is to be made today, not delayed until a period of political tranquility. It must be made under time constraints and in the context of dangerous crises.

Today, the EU manages its integration process not by following a linear incremental plan, but by synthetizing a multi-level and simultaneous response to a wide range of bigger and smaller emergencies. These range from the financial and refugee crisis to Europe's self-defense from terrorist attacks and regional conflicts to institutional complexities like "Grexit" and "Brexit."

A pessimist layperson's first impression might be that the EU's inability to cope immediately and decisively with these issues-its debt crisis, the increasing flows of refugees, terrorist attacks, energy dependence on antagonistic actors, the rise of populist forces, the societal strife, and, finally, the difficulty of the EU to deliver on the promise that a more integrated Europe means a better quality of life for European citizens-could provide a sufficient framework for a gradual (or even sudden) disintegration. However, before siding with the pessimists' camp, it is important to distinguish the noise from the signal. A closer and more careful observation reveals that, despite the noise of these difficult events, in these last few years of the Great European Crisis, the EU has signaled its strength by taking institutional steps that no one believed would be possible even five years ago.

In this moment of danger, the EU clearly responded that it would not allow its period of great crisis to end up in great disintegration. Contrary to expectations, Brussels undertook the responsibility to transform the crisis dynamics into a momentum of institutional and organizational change. The list of the institutional developments is impressive. Europeans put in place a permanent mechanism for dealing with the immediate and midterm member-states' financial difficulties; they structured a Banking Union with a common macro-prudential and resolution regime, expanded the authority of the European Central Bank, and created ab initio the necessary framework for a common fiscal and tax policy. By doing so, they gradually shifted from a mere monetary union to an extended economic union. They also created the Capital Markets Union, the Energy Union, the Digital Market Union, and they accelerated the functioning of the Common Foreign and Security Policy. Texts like the "Report of the Five Presidents" and "The European Union in a Changing Global Environment" provide us with clear illustrations of the EU's willingness to make significant steps forward, and contradict the impression that the Union is slowly disintegrating.

Contrary to the negative impressions held by the public because of the constant and prolonged disagreements, disputes, and indecisiveness of the EU to understand the dangers it faces and to act promptly, Brussels managed to prove its resilience in the end. Thus, the question is not about whether the EU will, in the end, do the right thing. The problem is different: it is first, what causes the EU to delay so much in doing the right thing; and, second, how does this delay create centrifugal forces at the governmental level for the member-states, as well as societal mistrust at the level of the citizens? …

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